The world of comics bloggers has been consumed, of late, by an ongoing debate over the merits of the superhero genre. I've tried to stay out of that - I cancelled the one post I was going to write on it when I realized I was commenting only on other bloggers' methods of argument, not the substance of their arguments, usually a sign that a debate is ready for the mortician. (Although I will note that Dave Intermittent offers a couple of great summations and responses on his site; I especially appreciate the invocation of Pynchon, Rushdie, et al.) Since this topic ultimately boils down to matters of taste, I wonder if there's really any substance to argue at all.
But I have seen one claim, made by both sides of the debate and with increasing frequency, that's worth addressing. It's the idea that superheroes are (or are not) a worthwhile genre because they are (or are not, or sometimes are but often are not) metaphoric.
Which raises the question: metaphoric of what? But it begs an even more important question: do they have to be metaphoric to be good?
The question reminds me of Slavoj Zizek's book on popular film, Looking Awry, which offers a reading of Hitchcock's The Birds that might prove particularly illuminating for all this discussion of superheroes and metaphor. (As an aside, I cannot tell you how much I despise having become one of those academics who begins his comments with a trendy invocation of Zizek. Especially since I'm not even drawn to his work that much. I promise you, it used to be worse; about four, five years ago you couldn't talk to an English grad student or professor without having them mention Zizek in tones once reserved for Shaun Cassidy or Davy Jones. But I do like Looking Awry.)
Zizek notes that many critics interpret the birds' assault as a symbolic reaction against Tippi Hedren's stimulation of the male protagonist's sexuality, awakening him from his stifling, mother-centered family life... or something, it's been a while since I've either seen the film or read the book, okay?
Anyway, the point is that Zizek argues The Birds isn't, from a certain psychological perspective, symbolic of anything at all - the birds' assault is terrifyingly real, a literalization and not a figurative metaphor of the movie's suppressed emotional state. In a tour de force passage, Zizek speculates on what the film might have looked like if the birds were strictly symbolic - if the movie were a Tennessee Williams or William Saroyan play, or some other comfortably tepid midcentury work. He cites, in this Birds that does not exist, the multifarious avian symbols of awakened sexuality and threatened maternal repression that might litter such a movie: the birds bought as a gift (actually in the movie), the taxidermic mounting on the mantelpiece, and so on - none of which ever get around to attacking the humans and giving us BLOOD BLOOD BLOOD.
Zizek's point is that Hitchcock doesn't bury these emotional subtexts in figurative tropes; he makes them real, exploding them across the screen in a torrent of wings. The birds don't symbolize a psychological outburst; they are a psychological outburst unto themselves. And the result is a much more gripping, powerful narrative than the wan middlebrow alternative Zizek imagines.
As in Hitchcock, so in the superhero comics. Superman doesn't symbolize the immigrant's split impulses between assimilation and cultural tradition; he is that split impulse. The Vision doesn't symbolize artificial intelligence and the borders of simulated humanity; he is them. Cliff Steele doesn't symbolize the Western dichotomy between mind and body; he is an extreme test case of that dichotomy, a readymade vehicle only occasionally exploited for that purpose by a Grant Morrison type - but even there, Morrison doesn't make Robotman a "symbol" of the mind/body split because he doesn't need to.
To add another example, Animal Man isn’t symbolic of "animal rights" or any other such thing – at best, he might provide a convenient free-floating vehicle for talking about those issues, but such talk will most likely happen in a surprisingly literal, not figurative, manner. (This is not necessarily a bad thing.)
But he does become a metaphor once Morrison starts using his status as a comic-book character (and a decidedly second-rate one at that) to start wringing out some real ontological tragedy for another class of beings quite different from Buddy Baker. Buddy is a hapless victim of the cruelest, most irreversible of circumstances - he's been created by sadistic, senseless, and ultimately inferior beings who destroy his world and his loved ones for no discernible reason beyond, perhaps, their own amusement. And the author-figure who torments him, like the animator in "The Coyote Gospel," is a stand-in for a particularly bitter vision of God; Animal Man, in other words, becomes a metaphor for us.
That's a particularly rich use of superhero as metaphor, but it's also a fairly rare one. What I'm suggesting is that superhero comics - or fantasy genres in general, perhaps - operate primarily through what Hayden White might term metonymy, not metaphor. They offer a literal substitution or stand-in or test case for the larger idea, not a figurative replacement. And this is potentially amazing, because the genre's conventions - oh, those much-derided genre conventions - allow it to metonymically represent concepts and dilemmas and emotional states normally representable only through figuration, symbol, and metaphor. W.E.B. DuBois had to imagine a veil to talk about double-consciousness and the fracturing of racial self-identity, but most superheroes actually are split identities - and a few shrewd creators have figured out how to use the latter to talk about the former.
Most superhero comics don't do this, of course; many don't even realize they can. And when lesser creators do attempt to locate some kind of larger meaning in their superheroes, they usually botch it up by aiming straight for the metaphor rather than letting these real embodiments work for themselves.
Don't think I'm knocking the hack writers here; the artsy fellows are, if anything, even more prone to this mock profundity. Ang Lee and James Shamus fell for it in their screenplay of The Ice Storm, and I suspect this upcoming Vertigo book about Superman has bitten into it hook, line, and sinker - which is just one reason why I'll be avoiding the godawful thing like the plague. (Said plague being the semi-autobiographical wankery plague that's run rampant through prose "nongenre" fiction and now apparently has its sights set on the spandex.)
I'll take a shlocky, if well-realized, superhero story over that any day, and not only for its more considerable visceral pleasures. Why (to jump back to my Thanos rant) would you try to make a supervillain a metaphor for the death-drive implicit in autocratic conquerers when you could just have him try to fuck Death? On one level, of course, a character named "Thanos" might seem to be just about the most metaphoric one in comics, but on another level he works precisely because the fantastic elements of the genre allow him to embody that death-drive in a horrifically literal manner.
That's why I think some superhero fans are looking to dignify their genre in the wrong places. Don't defend it because it's metaphoric; defend it because it doesn't even need to be.